Our senses define how we react to, interact with and know the world. So when your sensory system works differently than it should, major issues can develop. We all know that sensory issues have a profound impact on kids with autism. But often we over look this basic challenge, reacting to behaviors instead of alleviating the sensory struggle behind the acting out.
Picture this: walking into a grocery store and your senses are taken hostage by the environment. It’s beyond your control. Fluorescent lights are flickering like a strobe light, and you hear them humming. Voices assault you from every side, the speaker system, the baby crying, and the cashier making change. On top of what you hear and see, the smell of different foods, perfumes, and floor cleaner from the employees who are mopping down the cereal aisle floods your brain. Over stimulation, under stimulation pick your poison. Both of these processes work against you. You freeze, close your eyes, cover your ears, make your own noise or fall on the floor in a fit. Everyone is baffled by your behavior.
Like a diabetic in need of insulin, a person with autism needs a sensory diet to keep a healthy mind and body connection. Each individual with autism has a different prescription for their senses, therefore it is crucial for caregivers, therapists, and educators to read the cues and learn how to be proactive and preventative.
Utilizing the natural environment and collecting a variety of sensory play can be easier than you think. No need for fancy equipment, therapy rooms or professional training. Giving your child the sensory input to regulate them everyday is very doable once you see the possibilities in everyday routines.
Resources such as The Out of Sync Child and The Out of Sync Child has Fun by Carol Stock Kranowitz, offer a variety of suggested activities and ideas using household materials. The Out of Sync Child also walks you through understanding all the sensory systems – did you know there are seven? – and helps you determine if your child is over or under reactive within these systems.
Some favorite sensory activities
- Watering plants using a bucket instead of a hose. The heavy lifting calms and regulates kids that struggle with knowing where their body is in space (proprioceptive system).
- “Sandwich Time” has the added bonus of social interaction built right in. Using large pillows squish your child between two cushions. Playful and fun, this sensory activity will quickly become a family favorite.
- Chewing work is another easy fix for calming children living with autism. Provide gum, Starbursts or Laffy Taffy to give your child deep sensory input.
Depending on your child’s needs, their sensory diet can change based on seasons, illnesses, and anxiety. Access occupational therapy services to help you design the right diet for your child as well as guidance on specific issues and to stay on top of changes. Because things will change. A professional evaluation will help you pinpoint areas in which to focus and therapy schedules help keep sensory diets consistent and routine.
But parents are in the unique position of adapting strategies quickly based on day-to-day and minute-to-minute needs of their child. So arming yourself with an understanding of sensory processing disorder and packing your parenting toolbox full of on-the-fly sensory interventions, means that you will be regulating your child when and where they need it.
Many parents are already providing a sensory diet without knowing it through structured time for water play, playground breaks, squeeze and cuddle time, rocking and swinging. It is amazing how in tune caregivers can be with their child’s needs and provide a sensory diet naturally. But being aware of your child’s needs in the sensory realm allows you to calm and regulate your child before behavior issues arise. Through mindful sensory input throughout the day, you are laying the foundation your child needs to learn from, interact with and enjoy their world.